The Firm of the Future. What does the future look like? And how does one ready their firm to flourish in it? Lately, the future seems to be arriving faster than it used to, and these questions have increasingly grown in significance. Many of you also recognize The Firm of the Future as the title of the landmark book by Ronald Baker and Paul Dunn, where they lay out an argument and a plan for professional firms that shifts focus intensely to identifying and pricing for value. Another highly recommended title and a companion volume: Implementing Value Pricing.
Like many Thrivealists, I am fascinated by the concept of the firm of the future – it’s so core to who we are, and runs as a common thread through our Manifesto. The more I thought about it though, the more I came to think that “the firm of the future” was somewhat of a misnomer. I had a chance to actually chat about it once with Ron Baker, and he readily agreed. He wasn’t fully comfortable with the term, but he hadn’t found one he liked better just yet. More recently you’ll often find him, and other members of the VeraSage think-tank, using the phrase “timeless firms,” which I find much more apt.
Language affects thought, which in turn affects belief, which then impacts action. The problem in my mind with “the firm of the future,” is that it is both singular, and static.
The phrase implies that there is one ideal form of a firm that can exist and thrive in the future. I would suggest that it is the very nature of future firms that they are multiple and varied. As many of us are aware of the book Start WithWhy by Simon Sinek, famously encapsulated in this TED talk, each firm owner should begin by examining what it is that motivates them to serve their market, why do they get up in the morning, what is the core belief that so convinces them and has to be given an outlet, finding expression in manifold ways through their daily work? The answer to this question is as unique as the individual asking it. No two of us are exactly the same; each of us are entirely irreproducible. And by extension, the firms of the future are as unique as the people in them. There’s no need to try to be like the other guy, or all follow the same model. I see a future landscape that looks much more like a handmade patchwork quilt than a machine woven silk sheet.
On a left-siders call, I once heard Simon Sinek speak about how finding and communicating your “why” was like defining the shape of your puzzle piece, and then holding it high above your head for the world to see so that others whose puzzle piece fit yours could recognize you, and snap their piece in next to yours. This illustrates that we also have to make sure our why connects to something that’s of value in the marketplace. Like the HBR article The Disciplined Pursuit of Less brilliantly explains, the magic is found at the intersection of passion, talent, and market. The market is far from homogeneous, we have only to find the genes we can replicate with. As the saying goes, if an artist creates a piece of work and nobody connects to it, is it really art? (Okay, so maybe I just made that one up.)
Okay, so maybe it’s not so much “firm” as it is “firms.” My second suggestion is that it is not so much “future” as it is “futures.” “But Adrian,” you might say, “there’s only one future. How can you have more than one?” Setting aside the whole physics concept of string theory and parallel universes for just a moment, I want to focus more on the reality that the future is constantly unfolding. Each future eventually becomes today’s present, and tomorrow’s future follows that. There are so many futures ahead of us, and we’re not preparing for any one of them. We’re preparing for all of them, which is why I suggest developing the firm of the future is developing the firm that develops. We have to build the ability to build into our model – it’s not just complete a blueprint and you’re done. It’s grow a garden and keep planting and tending and weeding and watering. Practically speaking, I think this means entrusting your processes to empowered team members using internal tools that allow you to reconfigure as you learn, maintaining a clear sense of purpose so everyone is being guided by common principles. It als means regularly setting aside time to create as well as do.
I was happy to see this very concept explored in the latest book from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. (As an aside, Nassim is also author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, another highly recommended title.) In the words of the book’s description, “The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shock and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.” What would it say if we could claim our firms actually get stronger with each successive wave of unexpected change? I think part of creating this environment is gaining comfort with a little bit of perpetual messiness – something that perhaps runs counter to our nature as accountants, but shouldn’t as entrepreneurs. Nature is ordered, but she is also messy – we mimic this dynamism to grow organic systems inside our firms, and hence our ability to adapt and thrive in the futures ahead of us. (If you’re more curious about the book Antifragile, check out this recorded Google Hangout with Ed Kless.)
Putting this all together, developing the firms of the futures, is both more freeing and more scary. More freeing because we don’t have to be anyone other than ourselves. More scary because facing the man in the mirror is the hardest challenge of all. I want to encourage you, and I repeat these words to myself, it is an adventure worthy of the risk that leads both outwards and inwards – the greatest adventure of all.
Adrian G. Simmons is a CPA innovating ways to put money in its place. After working as an auditor out of college for KPMG, he joined his father in public practice in 2002, and now acts as the Chief Creative Designer there. With the team, he looks for ways to help their customers become financially strong, so that they can focus on what truly matters in life. Adrian likes tech, uses a fountain pen, successfully attempted a half-marathon (and may try another) , and prefers dark over milk chocolate.